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Music

He Shot the Boss

Nicole Pensiero

'Springsteen was my guinea pig,' Ceccola told me in a 1999 interview. 'He was how I really learned to take a decent picture.'

All photos by Phil Ceccola.
Reprinted with permission.

Phil Ceccola , considered the premier photo-chronicler of Bruce Springsteen's early career, died at his sister's home in Souderton, Pennsylvania, Sunday, July 13 of brain cancer. Ceccola's best-known photograph -- that of a young Springsteen resting backstage at Bryn Mawr, Pa.'s Main Point -- graced the cover of the 1998 box set, Tracks and its abridged version, 18 Tracks.

Ceccola was, according to longtime friend and entertainment writer Chuck Darrow, a "passionate fan" of music. It was that passion, Darrow notes, which pushed Ceccola towards photography; a profession where he could get up close and personal with musicians whose work he loved.

"Springsteen was my guinea pig," Ceccola told me in a 1999 interview. "He was how I really learned to take a decent picture."

The Tracks cover photo, which shows a pensive 25-year-old Springsteen sprawled out on a couch, was altered slightly from the original for the album cover. Gone were the pack of smokes -- "They weren't his, (Springsteen) never smoked," Ceccola said, and the table lamp was redesigned.

But he didn't care: "I'm fine with it; it's still the same shot." Ceccola said at the time he was just tremendously honored to have his photo -- taken when he was all of 20 years old -- chosen for the cover of such an illustrious musical collection.

There were many photos to choose from, actually: about 20,000 photos of Bruce Springsteen were taken by Phil Ceccola between 1973 and 1981's The River tour.

"People often refer to my work as being of Bruce in 'the bearded years'," Ceccola told me. "I was just a kid having fun, but he was one, too."

A self-taught photographer, Ceccola got his first taste of rock photography in 1966 when, as an 11-year-old, he snapped the Temptations onstage at Atlantic City's Steel Pier. By the time he graduated high school in 1972, he carried his Pentax 35-mm with him constantly.

Ceccola first heard Springsteen in 1973 on a Philly FM radio station. The song was "Blinded by the Light" and it turned Ceccola into an "instant fan," as he put it.

When Ceccola found out that Springsteen was coming to The Main Point -- only a seven-minute ride from his West Conshohocken home -- "that was the start of it."

"I started traveling around getting picture at as many of (Springsteen's) shows in the area I could get into," Ceccola said. Being managing editor of the long-defunct Philadelphia alterative newspaper The Drummer afforded Ceccola easy access to the burgeoning star.

Ceccola took countless photos of Springsteen between 1973 and 1976, and made countless trips to Springsteen's shoebox of a home in West End, New Jersey, to show him the results.

Because Ceccola hung out so much at Springsteen's gigs, the singer became desensitized to his presence, which, Ceccola said "of course made for a better picture."

Ceccola's early photos of Springsteen show the future superstar in all his youthful glory: peering out from behind a door ("He was between shows and undressed," Ceccola said); wearing mismatched shoes; chatting with an equally young Jackson Browne.

In the 1970s, Ceccola toured extensively with Elvis Presley and continued to photograph various acts as they played in the Philly area. (Ceccola's 1975 shot of Jean-Luc Ponty at The Main Point made the cover of Ponty's Aurora CD).

Chuck Darrow met Ceccola at a press event at The Main Point in the fall of 1974.

"I was 18, a freshman writing for my college paper, and tremendously star-struck by the whole scene," Darrow recalled. Ceccola struck up a conversation with the young writer and "from that point on was a mentor to me."

"Phil really helped me get connected to the whole music scene in Philly," Darrow recalled. "He had no agenda other than to just be a nice guy."

Eccentric "in the best sense of the word," Ceccola was a tremendously gifted concert photographer, as well as a graphic artist, Darrow said.

"For many years, he was The Man in Philadelphia," said Darrow. "Phil was totally plugged into the scene. He had Springsteen sleeping on his couch. He knew everybody." Shortly before Ceccola's death, he wrote a personal inscription and signed a print of Springsteen with Clarence Clemons for Darrow.

"I knew how sick he was and I was tremendously touched by it," Darrow said. "I really loved the guy."

While Ceccola's career is most closely linked with Bruce Springsteen, it was quite varied. In the '80s, he was the official photographer for Electric Factory Concerts, snapping everyone from David Bowie to Elton John at various venues. For the last four years, Ceccola went on the road as Rick Springfield's official photographer, stopping only when his illness became too severe. (On the Rick Springfield fan website, www.ricktopia.com, Ceccola would answer questions about photography and encourage shutterbugs to be creative in their work).

Denny Somach, a rock historian, collectables merchandiser and former DJ, knew Ceccola for 25 years and partnered with him three years ago to sell framed, signed silver-gelatin prints of five of Ceccola's early Springsteen shots.

"Phil was truly one of the most unbelievable individuals I've ever known," Somach said. "I saw him a week before he died, and he was in good spirits, still able to smile."

Ceccola, whose work was exhibited in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in the late '90s, was the subject of a photography exhibit at the Hard Rock Café in Orlando, Florida, earlier this year. While Ceccola was too ill to attend the star-studded opening, Somach went and came back with photos of the event.

"Phil was thrilled," Somach said. "And the exhibit had to be held over it was so popular."

Somach says he hopes to eventually put out a coffee-table book of Springsteen photos taken by Ceccola. In the interim, he has organized a fundraising exhibit of Ceccola's photography beginning August 7 at the Orbit Gallery, 4203 Main Street, Manayunk, PA. Proceeds from the sale of prints will go to a trust fund for Ceccola's two daughters. For more information about the exhibit or how to order signed Ceccola prints, e-mail: [email protected]

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